The virtual world is also real, in all the ways that matter

A couple of things I saw in the New York Times on Sunday started me thinking (not for the first time) about how we often react to the virtual or “fake” world in ways that are just as real as the way we respond in the so-called real world. The first was a piece from Nellie Bowles about how human interaction has become a luxury good, in the sense that rich people can choose to have it, while poorer people are often left with virtual interactions instead. This is an excellent point, but what really struck me was the way she described the person she referred to in the lead paragraph of her story:

Bill Langlois has a new best friend. She is a cat named Sox. She lives on a tablet, and she makes him so happy that when he talks about her arrival in his life, he begins to cry.

Bill is a 68-year-old man who retired after a lifetime of working as a machine operator. He lives in a low-income housing complex in Lowell, Massachusetts. His wife is out of town a lot, and so he gets lonely, and Sox helps to cheer him up — she talks about his favorite baseball team, and tells him he should be drinking water instead of soda. What struck me was that Sox is a piece of software whose responses are typed in by people in offices far away, and she is described as “a simple animation [that] barely moves or emotes.” And yet, Bill loves her so much that it makes him cry.

The other example was an opinion piece from Stephen Asma, a professor of philosophy, who writes about watching his son play online video games with his virtual friends, some of whom may or may not be bots. He doesn’t seem to care, and Asma writes about the different levels of friendship, and wonders whether it’s possible to truly form a deep relationship with someone you have never met in person. But then he mentions a young disabled gamer named Mats Steen, who created such an impression with his online friends that some of them flew to the Netherlands to be at his funeral.

Some of his closest friends online did not even know about his disability, and they became close because their nightly communications jumped straight over the usual biases of gender, race, religion, place, age, ability, and got on with the mysterious bonding of souls, via the shared minutiae of everyday struggle

That piece made me think about conversations my wife and I (and friends) had about our middle daughter, who spent a lot of time in online forums and communities of various kinds when she was in her teens. People would often say they wished she would spend more time with her “real friends” in the “real world,” but I think for her those friends were very real — in all of the ways that matter.

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